This week we lament the passing of one of the most dynamic African-American women of the 20th century: Maya Angelou. We can rest easy in the fact that her life was full and deep. Do we dare list all that she dared to do? Here is only a brief dusting—
-First female cable car driver in San Francisco at age 14
-first to describe in painfully vivid detail the horrors of rape at the hands of a mother’s boyfriend
-a single mother at 17, unwed, but forced to hustle to survive, including a stint as a hooker
-first female African American woman to pen a TV screenplay and compose music score, Georgia, Georgia that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
-studied modern dance with Martha Graham and danced with Alvin Ailey
-singer and stage performer with records such as Calypso Lady
-actress on the famous series “Roots” (1977)
-editor of The Arab Observer in Cairo and later instructor and assistant administrator at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama
-feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times and the Ghanaian Broadcasting Company
-writer of seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry, a long list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning more than 50 years
-one of the few African American performers to tour Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess
-spoke five languages
-active in the civil rights movement with such figures as Malcolm X and Vusumzi Make
-heartbroken at the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr on her birthday she went on to write one of the most painful memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, including the painfully vivid detail of rape at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend
-recited “On the Pulse of the Morning” on the morning of President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 before becoming Poet Laureate of America
-professor since 1981 of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina
-acted on television and films including Poetic Justice (1993) and directed numerous dramatic and documentary programs on television, most notably, Down in the Delta, in 1996.
-In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded her the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Maya Angelou was a “Phenomenal Woman.” She dared all. So what does she have in common with us Greek American girls? Well, she too you can claim was a Greek-African American woman.
In 1951, against the outrage of her mother and the atrocious taboos against interracial marriage, she married someone like us—a handsome, studly Greek sailor, electrician and aspiring musician Tosh Angelos. That’s why her last name is Greek; it is a derivation from her husband’s name. (Her first name was a derivation from the stutter that Bailey, her beloved younger brother, had “My” later becoming “Maya” from a book about the Mayans he was reading.)
Not much is known about her relationship with Tosh, except that it was sensational. Of course he must have been hot and they were attracted in an erotic kind of way. But most certainly their attraction must have been formed as a rebellion against the rigid codes of racist pre-1960s America.
Like us, she must have had a tumultuous marriage. After only three years, her marriage ended in divorce. But it was at that point that her artistic career really got off. She entered the most fruitful period of her life artistically as a result.
Like us, Greek American women, Maya lived life passionately. She had a deep and burning love for life that manifested in the kaleidoscope of her art. She loved to travel. She loved to love. She was strong yet humble at the same time. She had a way with people. She was a caring mother. She understood suffering both her own and that of her people. I even saw an interview she had with Dave Chappelle talking about how she broke up a fight between two young African American teenagers. She took the one who was raging aside and gently spoke to him about the sufferings of his people and that what he was doing was destroying himself. That young man later turned out to be Tupac Shakur. When she came into his life, he then went on to begin the most fruitful part of his artistic career.
Yes, dear friends, Maya Angelou was and always will be Greek.